My So-Called Asian Identity: The Invisible Minority Report

The only time I get asked “Are you Filipino?” are by nail salon clerks, apparently making sure I”m not Thai or Vietnamese so they can carry on in their conversations without worrying about my possible ability to understand their loud gossip.  When I lived in France during my junior year of college, Japanese and Chinese tourists frequently mistook me for their own and my paleness at the time certainly added to the illusion.  In the most populous state of California, Filipinos have enough of a population presence that they are counted as a separate ethnic demographic from Asians and Pacific Islanders since the 2000 census.  Yet Filipino cultural visibility and societal participation remains frustratingly minimal given the lack of Filipino restaurants, lack of Filipino celebrities and politicians, and minimal knowledge of crucial historical relationships between the Philippines and the United States.  Filipinos truly are what the Wikipedia entry on “Filipino American” labels as the “invisible minority.”

U.S. involvement in the Philippines began with the Spanish-American War of 1898 and continued with the Japanese occupation during World War II.  Philippine liberation in 1945 directly led to large-scale Filipino immigration to the United States in various waves following the war.  The aggressive Americanization that  twentieth-century U.S. military occupation in the Philippines gave Filipinos an “anything American is better” mentality that later gave Filipino immigrants to the United States a unique head-start to assimilation.  Filipino cultural traditions seem to be practiced by immigrant grandparents and parents but appear to be entirely abandoned by their U.S.-born grandchildren.  I suspect this is an unfortunate consequence shared amongst countless other immigrant groups.

Filipino-Americans have always suffered a mild inferiority complex in the United States in regards to their status in both the Asian-American community and U.S. society at large.  Filipinos in the United States have settled for a strange complacency about being overlooked when it comes to recognition and representation in the greater Asian-American community.  It may seem like a presumptuous statement to make about all Filipino-Americans, but their obscurity persists in a nation that is finally warming to its inherent and inevitable ethnic diversity.

In my lifelong struggle to reconcile my Filipina identity with my U.S. heritage, I”ve simply become accustomed to being under-noticed, underappreciated, and simply overlooked as a Filipino-American in U.S. culture and history.  Filipinos come from a region considerably ravaged and irrevocably transformed by U.S. colonization, military intervention, and desperate poverty.  Millions have immigrated to the U.S. for better lives with the promise of opportunities nearly impossible to achieve in the Philippines.

It is no surprise that most people in the U.S. are simply unaware that the Philippines was a U.S. Commonwealth from 1898-1946.  The United States took the Philippines as a prize after the Spanish-American War in 1898 much to the dismay of the Filipino freedom fighters like rebel leader Emilio Aguinaldo who sought freedom from centuries of oppressive Spanish rule.  Although Aguinaldo and his rebels proved crucial to the U.S. victory, their efforts were thrown in their faces when the U.S. decided to colonize the country instead of liberate it.  It was an especially cruel bait-and-switch that compelled Aguinaldo to oppose the U.S. push for sovereignty.  Again, he led rebel forces, but this time against the very soldiers who were once his allies.  The Philippine-American War lasted for three years resulting in American victory and subsequent colonization that lasted until the end of World War II.  The Philippines did not truly gain independence until July 4, 1946, in the wake of calamitous destruction from battling Japanese and U.S. forces.  Manila, once the shining metropolitan jewel of the Pacific, was flattened on a Dresden-level scale by Japanese bombers and, to this day,  has never quite recovered

It is no question that Filipinos exulted in their long-awaited independence after two major world powers shaped disparate island communities into the unified, developing, and politically struggling nation of today.  U.S. intervention was a critical factor in achieving this freedom and opportunity for a unified self-rule.  Yet the imbalance of a third world nation having close links with the world”s main superpower naturally sent millions of Filipino immigrants to this country.  When restrictions on Philippine immigration were lifted following the Immigration Act of 1965, an expected surge in the number of Filipino immigrants to the U.S. quickly followed.

Children of Filipino immigrants share the somewhat embarrassing peculiarity of being unable to speak their parents” native languages, whether it is Tagalog or any number of the regional dialects spoken throughout the Philippines. I find it embarrassing because most of my second generation Asian-American peers, who had Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Thai, Vietnamese, and Laotian backgrounds, are fluent in their parents” languages without having any trouble speaking English as fluently as I do.  The fact that most of my classmates were first generation Mexican-Americans who switched between English and Spanish with enviable ease only compounded my sense of failure at not being bilingual.  For most second-generation Filipino-Americans, our aptitude in any native Filipino tongue is limited to understanding major vocabulary words (especially swear words), the general gist of conversations, but never truly understanding or parsing the language.  Lack of fluency in my parents” language has served to distance me from my parents” culture in a way they probably never intended.

The reasons why most second-generation Filipino-Americans grew up only speaking English are certainly related to the U.S. colonial influence on English-language education in the Philippines.  When the United States annexed the Philippines as a commonwealth, they established a comprehensive educational system that made English a requirement of scholastic success.  By contrast, when the Spanish ruled, only the white peninsulars (people born in Spain) spoke Spanish among themselves and the language remained in the upper classes with a fair number of words seeping into local dialects.  Today, high rates of English literacy in the Philippines has made it a popular alternative to India for outsourced call center support.

Mastery of the English language has given Filipino immigrants the ability to assimilate to U.S. ways and lifestyles much easier than many other Asian immigrant groups.  Those same inquisitive Thai and Vietnamese nail salon clerks have told me on several separate occasions that they are jealous of how well Filipinos speak English.  I have noticed that Filipinos do largely belong to the middle class, and a high percentage of us have college degrees.  My parents, born in the mid-1940s during the catastrophic devastation of World War II and its aftermath, grew up speaking English from grammar school to university because it was and continues to be the primary language of instruction.  Even when the U.S. left, the Filipinos caught onto the “lingua franca” upswing of the English language.  Nearly everyone in the country is fluent, making many Filipinos tri-lingual by being able to speak English, Tagalog, and sometimes a local regional dialect.

In the midst of writing this piece, I came across a serendipitous validation of my cultural dilemma on a recent Philippines-themed episode of chef Anthony Bourdain”s show, No Reservations.  For this show, he travels to locales far and wide around the planet to meet foodie locals and indulge in authentic local cuisine.  In Season Four, the Philippines was the very last country in Asia featured on the program.  Mr. Bourdain admitted that he had to capitulate to pressure from outraged, neglected, and very vocal Filipino viewers of his program.  In this episode, he interviewed a young second-generation Filipino-American man named Augusto.  He shared my concern about being caught in a strange limbo of not feeling truly Filipino, because of the distance and inability to speak the language, while not feeling truly American either.  Mr. Bourdain himself asks the various locals in the program, “Who are the Filipino People?”  He speaks for a great deal of people in the U.S. who are genuinely curious but know very little about Filipino culture and cuisine.  Augusto gets to the heart of the matter in a statement, “Filipino families will put another culture before theirs just so their kids can get along.”  I asked my parents why they never forced us to speak Tagalog or thought it was important that we speak their language.  They believed that it was the best way we could speak with non-accented English and have easier lives at school and at building a new life in the U.S.

Perhaps all those years of Spanish occupation set in the mentality of making the best out of limited circumstances.  But now we are in an era that celebrates difference and change.  I am recklessly optimistic that the tide is changing for Filipino-Americans. President Barack Obama”s recently passed stimulus package is righting a wrong that occurred 63 years ago: President Truman signed the Rescission Act taking away full veteran benefits to Filipino World War II soldiers who volunteered to fight when the Philippines was a U.S. commonwealth. reports, “A provision tucked inside the stimulus bill that President Obama signed calls for releasing $198 million that was appropriated last year for those veterans.  Those who have become U.S. citizens get $15,000 each; non-citizens get $9,000.”  Out of 250,000 Filipino men who volunteered to fight for the United States, only 15,000 survive and most of them are in their 90s.  The NPR program “Morning Edition” interviewed an elderly Filipino World War II veteran who, in response to the long-delayed reception of benefits, merely proclaimed, “America has come to its senses.”

The Obama presidency also has another Filipino-American connection close to home: the White House head chef happens to be a Filipina.  In the March 2009 Vogue cover story, First Lady Michelle Obama shares her enthusiasm about her new life in the White House by sharing, “I am excited about the potential of the White House kitchen being a learning environment for the community.  The current chef, Cristeta Comerford, is the only female chef in the history of the White House.  She”s a young Filipina woman, a mother with a young child, and I am excited to get to know her and for her to know us as a family.”  Ms. Comerford was appointed by Laura Bush but the Obamas elected her to stay on to be the main cook of all family meals and state dinners.  I am curious whether she”ll whip up some of my favorite, delicious Filipino food concoctions for the Obamas.  President Obama, after all, did grow up in the multicultural melting pot of Hawaii where the Filipino population is substantial.  Given his Southeast Asian roots in Indonesia, I think he is open to more recognition of the general region.  Indonesia is a sister country to the Philippines (given our shared Malay and Muslim roots) that could also use more exposure and representation.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder made some controversial remarks effectively accusing the U.S. of being a “nation of cowards” for not being able to recognize the racial rifts that still plague a great deal of this nation despite all the encouraging progress of recent years.  Mr. Holder says that the U.S. is  “…[a] nation has still not come to grips with its racial past nor has it been willing to contemplate, in a truly meaningful way, the diverse future it is fated to have.  To our detriment, this is typical of the way in which this nation deals with issues of race.”

My singular quest may be Filipino-specific, but I feel a particular spark in my soul to heed Mr. Holder”s call to “engage one another more routinely” about the issue of race because “there will be no majority race in America in about fifty years.”  I hope that Filipinos, and many other invisible minorities who have practically zero representation or recognition, are able to be vital and valued members of this astonishing and inevitable multicultural future.  The historical tendency to “Americanize” through the forced use of English deprives many Filipino-Americans of today the ability to speak a Filipino tongue.  However, it does not mean that Filipinos, as an ethnic group, have to be excluded from the cultural dialogue.  Someday soon, as people learn more about the vital historical connections between the United States and the Philippines, more people will start to ask me and my sister, “Are you Filipino?”


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2 Responses to My So-Called Asian Identity: The Invisible Minority Report

  1. avatar Leah says:

    Great blog!

  2. avatar Ken says:

    Nice blog again 🙂

    I believe, like what our Kasaysayan (History) 2 professor told us, that “Ang wika ang salamin ng isang bansa,” or in English “The language is the mirror of a nation.”

    You succeeded at step one (from your previous blog, where you narrated your “going back” journey). Step two, for me, is to “Learn the Filipino language.” You are an intellectual person. You, as a Filipino, has that capability to grasp other languages (common belief) so it will not be hard if you learn bit by bit the Filipino language (Tagalog), which is the language that might reside on your subconscious.

    Lastly, parents in the United States should still teach the native language to their children. The Philippines fought hard for its freedom (and is still struggling for its freedom from corrupt politicians as of this generation), let alone for its language. It is part of our heritage.

    Pagpalain ka ng Diyos sa iyong pagtuklas ng ating kulturang Pinoy.

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